Keeping a Hedgehog as a Pet
The hedgehog is a small mammal covered in spines that lives in Europe, Asia and Africa. There are 17 different extant hedgehog species, but the most common kept in captivity is the African pygmy hedgehog. All hedgehogs are nocturnal animals and feed mainly on insects. They are not difficult to maintain and care for, but this doesn't necessarily mean they will be a great pet. They require special care due to both their physical and behavioral characteristics, meaning they are not the best companion animal for everyone.
As an exotic pet, hedgehogs are not normally found in pet shops. At AnimalWised, we look into what is entailed in keeping a hedgehog as a pet and ask the question are hedgehog good pets?
Hedgehogs stand out for their spines, hollow hairs that are filled with keratin known as quills. These are not poisonous or particularly sharp, but they will cause pain if we are stuck with them. If threatened they are able to roll up into themselves to create a protective ball of spines. Their survival depends on this mechanism in the wild, but we see it happen when domestic hedgehogs are scared or stressed. Chronic stress can cause them to fall out.
They are 10 to 15 cm (4-6") long and can weigh a maximum of 400g (0.88 lb). Wild hedgehogs sleep for most of the day in grass or burrows, where they are protected. When the weather starts to cool and food becomes more scarce, they can hibernate and then become active again in the spring. They have five fingers with sharp claws that allow them to dig to get food in the earth, mainly in the form of insects.
They communicate via a wide range of sounds, everything from soft grunts to wailing screams. They are sensitive to sudden movements and sounds as they destabilize them. When confronted they will resort to protecting themselves with their spines and rapid breathing until the animal feels that the danger has passed.
Often they perform a ritual or a practice known as anointment. When they perceive a new smell, they approach to nibble and sniff, they then smear saliva on the object with the tongue, the reason for this behavior is unclear.
Keeping hedgehogs as pets
When keeping hedgehogs as pets, there are certain things we need to consider. These are all related to elements of their care and a series of responsibilities guardians of pet hedgehogs need to consider. Below we provide some of the most basic considerations you need to make:
- Solitary animals: wild hedgehogs are solitary animals and only meet up for mating purposes. You should not keep them in pairs or groups. There are rare instances when two females can share a cage, but two males will not accept each other. To know the sex of a hedgehog we can observe the underbelly where we will find two small testicles if it is a male or nothing if it is a female. For health reasons, it is not advisable for a hedgehog to breed at home.
- Other pets: although it is a solitary animal, they can live with other pets in the home as long as they are well socialized. Dogs and cats can see pet hedgehogs as prey, so they need to be trained and socialized also. Since they need to roam outside their cage for large parts of the day, they need to be socialized as a baby. Despite being a shy animal, they are good natured.
- Location: they require an ambient temperature of between 25ºC and 27ºC (77 ºF and 80 ºF). In winter, it is essential to have some independent heating for your pet, otherwise they could start hibernating which is totally inadvisable. They prefer dark areas.
- Hedgehog cage or hutch: your hedgehog will need a cage of at least 1.5 m in length where they can hide. It will need an absorbent substrate for waste. Their sleeping den should be at least 14 x 26 cm (5.5 x 10.2"). It is advisable there are no fabrics as they can easily get tangled with the threads. We can use special bedding or kitchen paper in a pinch. We will also provide some soil so it can dig as it would in nature.
- Sleeping habits: hedgehogs are nocturnal animals. During the night we should let them have space to run around outside their cage, so much caution will be required to ensure they are protected and don't escape. We can also supply them with a large wheel (at least 30 cm/11.8" in diameter) similar to wheels used by hamsters so they can exercise as needed.
- Hygiene: hedgehogs do not need to be bathed unless very dirty, but it is important to disinfect their environment to prevent disease.
- Diet: regarding feeding hedgehogs, it is preferable to feed it in the afternoon. We can provide them with food for insectivorous mammals (low-fat) or a specific feed for hedgehogs (we can find it in some pet stores). We must control the doses as they have tendency to gain weight. It is very important to offer insects, fruits and vegetables. Read more on what to feed a pet hedgehog.
- Handling: to pick them up we will may need to use oven gloves and let them sniff us so it can gradually recognize us. They can live up to 8 years.
Most common hedgehog diseases
Among the most common diseases affecting hedgehogs we find:
- Dry skin: they may even lose spines, we will hydrate them with liquid petroleum jelly.
- Mites, ticks and fleas: sprinkle their back with suitable parasiticides, where they can not lick themselves. In addition you must sanitize its living area.
- Fungal infections: the vet carries out a scraping and advises an appropriate treatment.
- Chapped ears: this stems from a problem with mites or fungi, once the main problem is solved we can hydrate them with cocoa butter. We need to be especially careful with long-eared hedgehogs.
- Diarrhea: usually a greenish color. It may be the result from a new diet. We must give it water to avoid dehydration. If the problem persists we must go to the vet.
- Vomiting: this is not common, but they may suffer this when being transferred by car. We must give them water to avoid dehydration. If the problem persists, you should go to the vet because it could be a gastrointestinal problem.
- Obesity: this is a serious problem which needs proper prevention with a balanced and adequate diet. Consult your veterinarian.
- Cold: it is a common problem, we must raise the temperature of the environment by a couple of degrees. In extreme cases, go to the vet.
All these problems should be solved by a veterinarian because it is an exotic and very sensitive animal. In addition to the diseases we have discussed they can suffer from other ones, in generally we are referring to rare or very uncommon problems such as hedgehog conjunctivitis or even cancer.
Are hedgehog good pets?
Rather than asking are hedgehogs good pets, we should be asking are we good guardians for hedgehogs? Many people see the undoubted cuteness of hedgehogs as warranting them to be kept as pets in the domestic environment. Unfortunately, this overlooks some of the serious concerns keeping hedgehogs as pets provokes. These concerns include the following:
- Sensitivity: hedgehogs are sensitive animals. Although we may keep them in a domestic environment, they are not a domestic species. They have not gone through the long process of domestication that other animals kept as pets have. They can be very fearful of humans and will need to be brought up around them from the time they are very young. It should go without saying that wild hedgehogs should never be kept as pets or taken away from their natural habitat (unless by qualified wildlife rehabbers).
- Responsibility of care: since they are small and cute, many families think they will be good pets for children. While they can be kept in homes with children, their contact together needs to be monitored. The sensitive and fearful nature of hedgehogs means that a kid's well-intentioned play can cause them to become very frightened.
- Resources: although small animals, they need to have plenty of room to roam around. This means a large cage and the ability to let them run around large spaces for long periods of the day. They need special feed and other accessories which can prove costly.
- Health: since they are not common companion animals, keeping hedgehogs as pets can be difficult in terms of health. Not all veterinarians are experienced in their care and finding the right exotic animal veterinarian can prove difficult. Vet bills for hedgehogs may be accordingly expensive since they require such specialized care.
- Nocturnal behaviors: since hedgehogs are most active at night, we should not disturb them during the day. They may have short periods of activity, but mostly they will want to rest. Our schedules may not line up with theirs and this can mean we won't be able to spend as much time with them as we would like to.
- Animal trade: the recent popularity in keeping hedgehogs as pets has led to greater demand. In turn, this has led to unscrupulous animals traders carrying out illegal and immoral activities to meet these demands. This includes taking wild hedgehogs from their natural habitat, breeding animals in substandard conditions, trafficking illegal pets and more.
These reasons don't account for whether hedgehogs are good pets in and of themselves. Hedgehogs can form bonds with their human guardians and there are many examples where individuals have safe and well-cared for lives in domestic environments. What they do account for is the difficulty in making this happen.
Keeping companion animals should not be influenced by trends. Not everyone is able to meet the demands of hedgehog care. If you are someone who is able to meet these requirements, you will still need to do research and consider every angle before purchasing a pet hedgehog.
Learn more with our article on caring for hedgehogs.
Where I can adopt a hedgehog?
If you have made your decision and believe you meet the requirements to be a good hedgehog guardian, then you may want to find out where to adopt a hedgehog:
- Private sellers: purchasing a hedgehog privately should be avoided at all costs. You can not know the treatment that the animal has received from their previous owner, If they have been treated inappropriately you may find yourself with a scared or aggressive hedgehog. There will be no health guarantees that confirm that the animal is healthy and in perfect condition and it can also suffer a lot of stress if it is an adult. This can lead to the most common diseases. It also promotes illegal and irresponsible breeding.
- Pet stores: the vast majority of pet stores are not used to these animals and do not always have the suitable skills to provide for them. For this reason you can not always be sure to adopt a healthy specimen that is well cared for. You may also be encouraging animal trafficking, depending on the quality of the store.
- Professional hedgehog breeders: they are the specialists and on the whole they will know the animal best as they are specialized in their breeding and care. It is the best place to get advice about their care and you will also have the advantage that you can choose the one you like best according to color, age or even behavior. However, it can be difficult to know if the breeders meet standards of care as there are often no regulatory bodies for adopting hedgehogs.
- Animal shelters: this is the best option. Many people adopt hedgehogs without knowing about their behavior and then abandon them. Shelters for exotic animals are definitely the best place to adopt a hedgehog and take care of it better than their previous owner.
As explained above, the hedgehog is solitary and nocturnal. You should not expect it to chase you around the house like a dog or seek affection constantly like a rodent would, it is a hedgehog.
You must play and interact with it in the evening and early morning, when it is more active. You can try to gain its trust by offering small worms (which they loves) or small pieces of fruit. The first few weeks, even months, you will have to manipulate your hedgehog with gloves because their spines are quite painful and they often turn themselves into balls when feeling mistrust of a situation.
It is normal that it moves with some agitation, does small sneezes and moves its nose without stopping. However you must always make sure that the temperature is suitable.
Not all hedgehogs will be be sociable pets, there will be some that will always be afraid of the humans with which they live. This point must be very clear before adopting one. Animal abandonment is usually due to not heeding this point.
Don't miss our other articles caring for a hedgehog and why does my hedgehog scratch themself so much?
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